Tuesday, September 3, 2013

September 3 - Gregory the Great, Pope, Servant of the Servants of God, Monastic

When Gregory became the pope, he left behind many things. He left behind a life of civil and secular power. He had been the prefect of Rome after it had been sacked and looted multiple times. He was beloved by the Roman people because of his incredible leadership and management. He had slowly and steadily rebuilt a once powerful city that had been ravaged by plague, famine, and foreign invaders. When his name was mentioned as a possible pope, the people of Rome gave him their full support (even if he wasn't entirely sure he wanted it). He left behind a life of monastic peace and contemplation for the leadership role that is the office of the pope. He would, for the rest of his life, look back upon his time as a monk and fondly remember the joy and comfort he knew in the cloisters halls of yesteryear. He recognized, however, that sometimes we are called out of our comfort and toward a challenge. Sometimes the arrows in God's quiver must be fired if they are to be used by the God they are devoted to. Thus, when Gregory was called as pope, he went willingly but perhaps a little wistfully.

Gregory was traveling in the Roman marketplace one day when he saw a slave-trader with a number of fair-haired British slaves. He asked what their nationality was and was told "They are Angles." Perhaps misunderstanding the statement or perhaps making a pun, Gregory responded: "Thy are well named, then, since their appearance suggests they would be at home among the angels." When he became the pope, Gregory was committed to the idea of providing missionaries to the British and bringing Christianity to the shores of the people he had encountered that day in the market.

He assembled a group of forty monks to go and be missionaries to Britain and put them under the leadership of Augustine of Canterbury (of course, he wouldn't be known as Augustine of Canterbury for many more years). The group of monks delayed in Gaul and talked among themselves about the stories they had heard about the British--surely, they were a savage people that sacrificed humans and behaved like animals. These stories frightened the monks and they corresponded with Gregory about their fears. Gregory's response was: "My very dear sons, it is better never to undertake any high enterprise than to abandon it when once begun. So with the help of God you must carry out this holy task." The party of missionary monks proceeded further and brought the Kingdom of God into the British world. All the while, Augustine was corresponding with Gregory with many anxious questions. Being the sound leader that he was, Gregory responded by answering the questions and forming the mind of Augustine to make the decisions for himself. Thus, when asked whether or not it was okay to baptize expectant mothers, he responded that it was acceptable and reasoned: "It is no offense in the sight of Almighty God to bear children." Thus, Augustine was taught not only the answer but also the rationale.

Gregory's service to the Church was of considerable magnitude even though he would have preferred to remain a humble monk. Instead, he was a humble and wise pope who led the people of God forward into the world. Bede--a British Christian of note--would write, "For while other popes devoted themselves to building churches and enriching them with costly ornaments, Gregory's sole concern was to save souls." Bede and the British claimed Gregory as their own because of his great efforts to save the people he loved even though he never left Rome. He was not called to the life of the missionary but, rather, the life of a leader whose vision crosses waters and guides the called in their calling.

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